Saturday, August 12, 2017

50 Years or so with HCPT - The Pilgrimage Trust

After careful discussion with some other long term  helpers  we in HCPT Group 729 decided that now would be a good time to retire from the Trust after so many fulfilling, interesting and not infrequently exciting, years of traveling as pilgrims to Lourdes with HCPT.

Immense gratitude first and foremost to the many children we have been privileged to have in our care over so many years; also to the many helpers  friends and other pilgrims  met over that time and to those who have had the task of coordinating such a great  group of travelers.

Very many happy, sad, exciting and even frightening events occurred over the years of pilgrimaging but this blog post will only mention a few.

In the early years HCPT was organised by a parish priest from his presbytery in Sutton Surrey. Then the organisation was that of a small London based charity with no groups from the Caribbean, Eastern Europe or the USA or other international groups as there are today. 

Boys from Beaumont College (which closed down 50 years ago) were encouraged to help with disabled children at Lourdes. So successful was that encouragement that some 6 or so HCPT groups were and still are led by Beaumont boys or their children and friends and there is even an HCPT London Beaumont region.

In the early days travel was  to Tarbres Airport by somewhat shaky turbo prop aircraft.

I recall one early flight when some children from Newcastle had to be escorted by Group 35 after Lourdes on a flight back from Gatwick - the huge aircraft was almost empty with just half a dozen children and helpers - no other passengers  on the round trip. Since then of course  several HCPT Groups based in Newcastle have been formed. 

On another occasion  when one of the plane's propellers span to a stop in mid flight, many in HCPT and the Group began to think of alternative means of travel and the result was the chartering of three HCPT couchette trains each with an ambulance car, traveling overnight from Boulogne to Lourdes. This form of travel  many of the children found exciting although from the helper's perspective was usually tiring. 

As one might expect a number of memorable travel incidents occurred on the trains. One involved a French national SNCF railway strike which started one year  just as we arrived a Bolougne sur Mer. A couple of thousand young children and their helpers were stranded on platforms after the cross-channel ferry had docked. What was to be done? 

As it happened one helper Yvonne who was half French and half British and had fought with French resistance colleagues during WWII.  One of her WWII resistance colleagues was now  a senior SNCF union official based in the town. He was on the platform  for the strike and was confronted by Yvonne. An argument ensued on the dockside but the outcome was that he agreed personally to drive the train from Bolougne to Lourdes overnight, which was a great relief to all. The only train to run  that day and night, in the whole of France. 

Another year I recall at about 2am as the train stopped at a small village station,seeing gendarmes  in mid fight with some louts drunk in the station bar; the gendarmes then fired tear gas at a few men misbehaving there - absurd over reaction in my view. The tear gas missed the louts but hit our couchette carriage promptly causing three asthmatics to wake and  vomit. I lept out of the train to confront the gendarmes but the train driver too came out and kept the peace by saying "moi asthmatic aussi!". 

In another year, a daughter of the Duke of Norfolk held a party in the ambulance car for helpers not needed at that time for child care.

Initially as 15 year old Beaumont College boys, Brian and myself joined HCPT Group 24 as helpers but then after a few years we started our own group Group 35 which Brian led for a couple of years until he became a Trustee of HCPT. Sadly Brian died in 2007 see:
Brian Burgess R.I.P. 

Happily  during the April  2007 pilgrimage, while walking back alone at about 12:30am from the Lourdes  Grotto to  the hotel  Alba, I met with  Brian quite by chance. He walked back to the hotel with me although it was in the opposite direction from his own hotel. We talked about life and our years together with the HCPT, going back to school days in the 1960s. Alas he died hardly three weeks later.

There were of course also many memorable happenings with Group 35 children. One involved 4 teen aged girls who were initially very difficult to manage,  partly I believed because they were trying to imitate the Spice Girls pop-group . Some devout pilgrims on the Lourdes Torchlight procession complained loudly that I was not doing enough to make them behave themselves! 

Matters improved fairly quickly though. Indeed during the Group 35 reunion at Wimbledon College  after the pilgrimage that year, the girls detailed  more about their family lives which sounded very difficult  and probably explained some of the earlier difficulties we had experienced. It was great that they then asked if they could join the Group as helpers in the years ahead.

Another case is   amusing. There was in the group a great boy who had Downs Syndrome and who loved swimming. One morning he wished to go for a swim supervised by our then young Jesuit helper Mr Bishop. He banged on an hotel door near his own room which he believed was  occupied by Mr Bishop but was then quite unfazed when the door was opened by a Diocesan Bishop but immediately said "oops  wrong bishop!". 

The  child in question has long since become a man and on occasion goes out to a local pub for a drink with one or two people who came with him as helpers when they and he were children, including maytrees max.

In the early days we stayed at the Ste Suzanne Hotel the water tanks of which at the top of the 7 storey building, frequently flooded the hotel. When this occurred water poured forth flooding the ground floor and bar, so much so that on one occasion I recall two small children from another group staying there, coming out of the ground floor lift with water all over the place and informing  Paul,  Group 35's deputy leader and myself, when we were visiting from our new Hotel (The Alba) that umbrellas were needed inside as well as outside, the Ste Suzanne.

Perhaps one of the most unexpected events involving the HCPT and   Lourdes was in preparation for the 1991 pilgrimage. One of the great Group 35 helpers was Bernadette from Baghdad. She told me at that time that her young nephew and niece had been visiting her from Baghdad when Saddam Hussein's army invaded Kuwait. Their father who had been due to join Bernadette, was stranded in the Middle East leaving her in charge of his two very young children who could not speak a word of English. 

To make matters far worse, the two children were declared enemy aliens in both England and France. Bernie said that that meant she could not travel with Group 35 to Lourdes that year. As we had a number of children who needed helpers like her, I asked her to bring her nephew and niece as well and that we would sort out their travel arrangements. In fact they came and by  dropping a pile of passports as they were being checked by immigration officials on the coach we managed to sneak them into and back from France without further difficulty. The niece who married at the Sacred Heart Wimbledon a couple of years back, after leaving uni. worked for the UN and today  speaks impeccable English

Of course there are countless   other happy and sad moments which took place over the years but which must remain private.  

Many many people young and old, have brought so much happiness and love to each other and it is a privilege to have been part of HCPT for so long.

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